Mark 1: 9-15
Good morning and grace and peace, in these first days of our annual Lenten journey toward Holy Week and the Cross. Still a ways away, until winter moves on into spring, but will be here before we know it. Helpful reminders that our Lenten disciplines, whatever they may be, are not about punishment, certainly not to try to match some special effort with the hope of earning a reward. We have overhead always the Cross of Christ as a reminder that that bill has already been paid in full. But that as we take in that message of a new reality we may, day by day, with thanksgiving, live transformed lives. Refreshed in his love. That we may be healed, corrected, and redirected in following him. So with prayers that for each of us individually, for our families, our congregation, and of course through all the wider Christian family this would be a season of renewal in every way.
We spent all those Sundays in the later part of the season after the Epiphany reading from the first chapter of St. Mark as our appointed gospel readings. Last week the seasonal lectionary moved us ahead through the story to hear the account of the Transfiguration—and now on this first Sunday in Lent here we are again, back by the Jordan in that first chapter, with John the Baptist, but with the intention this time not to focus on the baptism of Jesus and the great moment of the spirit with the voice, “this is my beloved Son,” but to move past that to what follows, traditionally called the “Temptation in the Wilderness.” One of those meaningfully recurrent and resonant numbers in the Bible, emphasizing lines of connection from one part of the story to another—and here echoing the long 40 year sojourn of the Israelites in the Exodus between the giving of the 10 Commandments on Mt Sinai and the entrance and return to the Promised Land. Under the guidance and leadership of Moses the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in that first story of life in the wilderness are shaped into a new people in a new relationship with God.
And now in these 40 days Jesus, anointed by the Spirit prepares for the life and ministry that is ahead. When he leaves this desert place he will learn that John the Baptist has been arrested and he will return to Galilee and call Peter and Andrew and James and John to join him. But first there is this time of fasting and prayer, the inner wrestling with the Enemy. As the older translations and our Collect this morning have it, Jesus is “tempted of Satan.” A time of purification and intensification of focus. In chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel and chapter 4 of Luke we read a bit more detail of what this was like, the fasting, prayer, wrestling, the specifics of the temptations. In parliamentary terms we might say here that Mark simply reports the event by title—perhaps he assumes we’ve already heard the fuller story. But we get a bit of narrative expansion at the end in this wonderful line: “he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” Evoking for me anyway the images perhaps of the Prophet Isaiah, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.” Jesus “with” the wild beasts. And the mention of angels may take our mind at once to those the shepherds saw in that dark night in the hills outside Bethlehem—and to those who will meet the women at the tomb at dawn on that Sunday morning. So at the very beginning of the story a hint of the end, the lines weaving in and out, back and forth, with connection and reconnection--the whole story coming together, of many stories, one story: a foreshadowing of the healing of creation and the triumph of God, the victory of the Cross.
We are of course every year invited ourselves into a kind of wilderness in Lent. To practice at least enough restraint in some area or areas of our lives that we can experience at least a distant echo of what Jesus felt in that life and death confrontation. The temptation on offer to give up the very thing that he was sent to accomplish. For us dessert or a glass of wine or a recreational hour in front of the television or computer screen. Giving up an evening here or there at home for the East End Lenten service, or for the Inquirers Class, or to come to church on Sundays a bit early for the Coffee and Conversation program. To put down the morning paper a few minutes early before heading out to work or school and to read a few verses of the Bible and a page in the Lenten Devotional booklet.
Whatever it would take so that we would find ourselves for a moment out in the desert, and to feel at least a twinge of temptation. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what, so long as its enough to give us that twinge. A place in our lives where we can ourselves with intentionality push back against the Enemy. As he did. So for just the briefest of moments, a spiritual gift through that--to identify with him at the beginning of this last leg of the journey. In this small way to be closer to Jesus. What should I give up this Lent? Or what new discipline or devotion should I take on? Whatever it takes, for that to happen.
Six weeks is of course a long time, and some days we manage our intentions better than others. And perhaps inevitability that sooner or later we will fail in the rigor of our Lenten discipline would call to mind for us the deeper message of our brokenness and sin. Those powerful words we say week by week. Exposing our own vulnerability. A friend of mine commented on the smudge of ashes of Ash Wednesday, that it is a visible reminder that we are a mess. No matter how thoroughly we spruce ourselves up on the outside, the smear on the forehead is like a quick glance into an open window. What goes on inside. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts . . . we have left undone those things we ought to have done, we have done those things we ought not to have done.” People tell me from time to time that they have felt like crossing their fingers at moments when reciting a creed or prayer, touched at moments of their lives by some shade of doubt, not sure they can speak these affirmations with full integrity and conviction. But I’d be surprised if anybody felt truly in their hearts with sincerity that they needed to cross their fingers here, even if sometimes out in the wide world we like to pretend we have everything together in our lives 24/7/365. Done what we know we shouldn’t have done, left undone what we should have done. “Followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” I can say that anytime day or night without the slightest moment of hesitation. One “miserable offender,” anyway. Falling under the assault of the enemy. Giving in to his soft invitation—which has been the story in my family anyway for a long time. Ever since Eden.
So in any event-- if we can bring ourselves to the desert here, at least for a moment: first Sunday in Lent. And perhaps in this moment as we take a deep breath, as we come forward to the Holy Table and then move on into this Lenten journey with him, as best we can, three steps forward and two steps back most of the time, and some days two steps forward and three steps back—perhaps we also may feel closer to him, which is what we want to feel and where we want to be—and may experience in our hearts and in our lives the encouragement and hope of those angels as they surround him and comfort him and embrace him and minister to him with their wings of love.